The Audacity of Age

Standing in line at the Musée D’Orsay with my Mother who is visiting.  We are about thirty minutes back from the front of the queue.  An old lady has recently shoved past us in line and we are watching in disbelief as she speedily makes her way through the five or six rows of people in front of us.    

Mom:  This is too good to be true!

Me:  No way she is going to pull this off.

Mom:  I think she is.  Look at her go!

Me:  Wow – see how she stops every once in a while, all innocent-like, the whole thing is so premeditated!  Really, she’s quite impressive.

Mom:  I bet she makes it all the way to the front.

For a moment I wonder about the morality of betting on an old person as though they were a race horse.

Me:  I will totally take that bet!  Someone is definitely going to bust her; I mean, we can’t be the only ones seeing this!

She makes it to the front in mere minutes.  My Mother is ecstatic.

Mom:  I knew it!

This is said with serious conviction.

Mom:  I just knew she was one of those!

My Mother is referring to a particular breed of French old ladies who don’t believe that rules apply to them.  On her recent trip to France, she became fascinated with this species after an incident at a pay toll.

“You see that look that MB is making,” I ask my Mother.

“Yes, why does he seem so annoyed?”

We are sitting in the car while he is waiting to pay our parking fee.

“It is definitely to do with the old lady in front of him.”

“Why?”  My Mother is confused.

“Because she totally skipped him.”

“Really?  I didn’t notice it.”

“Yeah, when she saw him about to put his card in she moved at the speed of light.  Remarkable really, considering the cane.”

“Well, it’s nice to let her go first anyway.”

“Oh yeah, for sure, but it isn’t about letting her, old ladies skip people all the time in France.”

My Mother is intrigued.

“How does that work,” she asks.

“There’s no “working” about it; they just do it and no one ever says anything.”

“Reediculous!”  MB has just gotten back in the car.

“Did you see it,” he asks.  “Did you see it?  She moved so quickly to skip me!”

“Yeah, I know, it was great,” I respond.

MB gives me a look.

“All I’m saying is one minute you are walking with a cane and the next minute you are moving at the speed of an Olympic sprinter; I gotta give some respect, that was a woman determined to skip you.”

This is a cultural phenomenon that I have watched with much amusement during my time in France.  Often I find myself waiting patiently in line only to be unceremoniously skipped by an old lady who just steps right in front of me as though it were the most normal thing in the world.  No acknowledgement, no sweet old-lady smiles, just ruthless ambition.  Some people get annoyed by this (*cough cough*…MB) and often I will catch the glimpse of an irritated eye roll from another patron but most people just stand around like it is not awkward at all.  “Am I the only one seeing this,” I think as I look around to find another person who finds it is amusing.   To me, it is hysterical, I love that no one dares to ever say a word to them even though they are inwardly fuming, and frankly, I just love the sheer audacity of these women.

High five, girl!  No?  You’re French you don’t ‘high five’, oh and you are pretending I don’t exist anyway. Okay, well congratulations on your badassery! 

I mean really, what’s not to love?  They are the beatniks of the elderly world, cruising by you oh-so-coolly, never speaking but always daring “what are you gonna do about it?”  So, I applaud you French-old-lady-line-skippers, I applaud you and your chutzpah*.

*For my non-American or Yiddish-speaking readers:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chutzpah

Sometimes they eat Vegetables in France

“Mais oui, there are vegetables in the dish; it is a fondue with mushrooms.”

Over the past weekend, MB, my parents and I journeyed through Provence.  A region full of stereotypes about how beautiful it is and how great the food is and what a relaxing atmosphere it has…they are all true.  Through the great efforts of MB, we were able to avoid the inevitable throng of English tourists that take over the south of France in July and August and find smaller, quieter areas.  We had a wine tasting in Chateauneuf du Pape (the only varietal that uses up to 13 different grapes), we drove through Orange and saw one of the best preserved Roman Theaters in the world, we swam in the Mediterranean, we played Petanque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9tanque) and drank rosé, we relaxed and enjoyed the unbelievable scenery.  But most importantly, we ate.

Now, most of my time in France has been spent in the Rhone-Alps in winter.  This is a region known for things like cheese fondue, raclette, and tartiflette.  When I order a salad, it is not unusual for it to come dressed with things like poached eggs, foie gras, gesiers (gizzards), magret de canard, and a variety of other fattening and delightful items.  Once, I had a salad in which the salad dressing was literally liquid cheese (it was fabulous).  So, while vegetables always make an appearance, my experience, in France, has been that they perform the back-up vocals for the stars: meat and cheese.  Not so in Provence; in Provence, it is just the opposite. 

On our first afternoon, we were startled to see plates coming out of a kitchen with plain fish, carrot, turnip, snails, and green beans…there was no cheese, there was no meat.  I began to think I had wandered into an alternate universe when, luckily, the huge bowl of aioli arrived at the table and I felt reassured that I was still in France.  But even with this, it was a revelation, the vegetables and the fish were the headliners and the aioli was the subtle accoutrement (okay, not so subtle – it was a spicy, intense, awesome, garlic endorphin rush).  Where was the butter and cream laden sauce?  Where was my meat, wrapped in meat, cooked in meat fat? 

Later that evening we went to a restaurant in Castellet* (http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/var/castellt/castellt.htm) for a 10:30 dinner…only in France can my parents stay up this late.  The waiter comes to the table as we are pouring over the menu and kindly offers some advice:

“You are in Provence; you get the vegetables.  Foie gras ?  No, this is for winter.”

I’m sorry, did I hear that correctly?  Did a Frenchman just tell me not to order the foie gras?  We adhered to his consul and enjoyed a variety of vegetable heavy dishes: vegetables stuffed with sausage, vegetable carpaccio, pesto soup with vegetables, etc.  Granted, afterwards, my parents and MB shared a huge entrecote (big hunk o’ beef), but again, it arrived unencumbered by rich sauces or salty cheeses and instead was presented by itself, beautifully cooked (my Mother salted it and I’m not sure my Father has forgiven her).

So, Provence has broadened my food horizons in France to include more than just meat and cheese.  Now, I will feel less guilty about serving vegetables as a main course at dinner; I will just tell people it is ‘Provencale’.  It is summer, afterall.  Perhaps, I will change my whole cooking style and for the rest of the year MB and I will focus on vegetable heavy meals with low-fat proteins like fish…I mean, except for tonight of course, our neighbor offered to make us a fondue, its not like you can say no, that would just be rude, right?  Anyway, I’m sure they’ll be mushrooms in it.    

*If anyone wants any further information about where we stayed or ate on this trip just let me know and I’ll be happy to provide details.

Which way do we go?

My parents arrived in France yesterday afternoon.  MB is still in the Philippines so it is my duty to escort them around.  This may not sound like a daunting task but for the past 6 months I have been so dependent on MB that I may not have paid as much attention to things as I should have. 

After arriving at the airport, we had to go and find where the rental car was. 

Mom: So which bus do we take?

Me: I’m not sure, hold on…

I go to look at the differences between the two stops.

Dad: Well, they both say Hertz.

Me: Yeah, but this one has a key on it.  I think that key means that this is where the office is.

A bus pulls up.

Mom: I’m going to ask.

Me: Mom, it’s not that one; that one doesn’t have the key.

My Mother goes up to the French bus driver and asks in Franglish.  He looks thoroughly confused.

Me: It’s this one, I’m sure it’s this one!

I point desperately at the other bus stop.  Oh my god, parents are SO embarrassing!  I’ve become a pre-teen. 

Finally, we board the correct bus, though on the 2 minute drive we endlessly debate whether it is, in fact, the right one. 

Me:  I think this is just going to a parking lot.

Mom: I think so too.  We may have to go back.

Dad: I think we are fine.

Me:  Look, it is all just parking lo–

Dad: See?  There is the office.

He gives the two of us a smug look.  We unload the bags and wheel up to the front desk. 

Mom: Well, do you have the reservations?

Dad: No, I don’t know.  I don’t know what happened to them.

He says this matter-of-factly as though their fate is sealed. 

Mom: Oh my god!

Panic.

Dad: Well, if they don’t have them then we will just have to figure something out.  If we have to rent another car we will rent another car.

Me:  It’s not the 80’s; they will have you in the computer. 

The check-in clerk kindly attempts to smother her laughter during this conversation; she and I exchange a knowing look that says, ‘yes, all families are the same’.  We then get to the car and after spending about 15 minutes trying to figure out how to put the seats down we were on our way.  My parents ‘ooh’d’ and ‘ahh’d’ during the drive, looking at the fields of sunflowers and the mountains in the distance; enjoying the French countryside.  It was peaceful and beautiful…then we hit town.

Dad: So which way is it?

Me: I think you need to go down this street to the right…

Mom: Well, let’s see what the GPS says.

Me: You know I live here, right?

I’m so cool and knowledgeable.

Mom: I know, I just want to check.

Dad: I can’t turn down that street it is one way.

Me: Crap, really? 

Dad: So, what do I need to do?

Me: I don’t know!

Dad: Well, I need to do something!

Me: Turn right!

Dad: Okay, I hope this isn’t the wrong direction.

Me: Maybe you should check the GPS.

My Mother gives me an innocent look that speaks volumes as she picks up the GPS.  ‘Not as dumb as we look, are we?’

Twenty minutes later we are pulled over to the side of the road, attempting to decipher the GPS, the map from the hotel with no street names, and my directional skills (or lackthereof).  After way too much input and three different opinions, we attempt to move out. 

Dad: How do you get this thing in reverse?

Mom: Oh my god, you can’t get it in reverse? 

Me:  What?  You are kidding me.

I climb into the front seat and my Father and I examine the gear shift.

Me: Where is the car manual?

My Mother opens the glove compartment.

Mom: Oh my god, there is no manual.

Me: Good stars!  (my colloquialisms come out when I’m with my family)

My Father keeps attempting to get the car into reverse and the car keeps inching forward.  We are stuck, in an illegal parking space a block from the hotel which is in the opposite direction on a one way street.  If we go forward any more we will ram the car into a poll. 

Mom: I’ll bet that insurance option isn’t looking so bad now.  I’ll push, just put it in neutral.

My Mother, ever the girl scout, jumps out of the car and attempts to push the mini-van sized vehicle backwards with my father and I sitting in it.  Oddly, it doesn’t budge.  I jump out to help, bracing my strappy sandals on the asphalt while we both push.  French bicyclists ride by and look at us curiously; she and I are both laughing out loud.  I can almost hear their internal dialogue, “Americans…they are so ‘strenge’, laughing like ‘leun-a-tiques’ and ‘pooshing’ this car.  Why they do not just put it in reverse?” 

Finally, with no solution in sight, I suggest that someone walk to the hotel and ask for assistance.  My Father is dubious.  My Mother begins to walk towards the hotel; I move back to the gear shift.

Me: It’s so strange; usually you just push down to move it-AH!!!!!!!  Eureka! 

Mom: What?  What happened? 

My Mother jogs back to the car enthusiastically.

Dad: She got it!  See, there is this little ring that you have to push up…

We all get back into the car, euphoric at our triumph.  My Father pulls the car back into position, ready to move out of the parking space.

Dad: Okay…so which way do we need to go?

Jamais Deux Sans Trois

The French translation of the ‘rule of three’ is somewhat different than in English but the outcome is the same.

I am so organized, I thought to myself this morning as I reviewed my baggage for the 5th time before leaving for the train station.  MB has been in the Philippines for two weeks with work and I was leaving today to meet him there for my birthday.  My birthdays tend to be…well…unlucky.  Break-ups, revoked visas, lost jobs, etc., are par for the course.  So I hadn’t been surprised when my bus ticket confirmation didn’t come through on the internet.

“You know what this means?  I’m going to have to go to the station and in some other language try to figure out how to explain that I have paid for my ticket but never received it.  I don’t even know the word for received.”

“It will be fine,” responds MB via Skype.  “It will not be a problem, don’t worry.”

“Easy for you to say,” I reply.  “You know it’s almost birthday time.”

“Enough with the birthday thing; this is in your head!” 

“Is it, MB?  Is it?

He rolled his eyes.   

So yesterday, I trudged down to the bus station to try to sort out my ticket.  After 20 minutes of confused Franglish with two different staff members, we were finally able to figure out a solution.  It was a hassle but not major; and I felt good about the fact that I was able to accomplish it in another language.  Instead of patting myself on the back, however, I should have recognized it for what it was: #1. 

Fast forward to this morning as I am smugly looking over my already packed bags with time to spare.  I decide that I will go on and leave for the bus since there is no harm in being early (a mistake I will never make again).  I check my passport, bus ticket, airline ticket (our city is an hour from the international airport) one more time and then I’m off. 

Phew…it is a million degrees as I trudge through the street, dragging my two bags along with me.  The sweat is rolling down my back and I can feel my make-up melting off; why did I blow-dry my hair?  As soon as I arrive at the train station, I whip out my super nifty travel document case and begin fanning myself with my boarding pass print out.  10 minutes later, the bus arrives and I throw my bags on and pull out the novel I’m reading.  The journey is pleasant, the sky is blue, and the towns are charming; I’m on my way.  An hour later, as we are pulling into the airport, I unzip my bag to replace my novel when…what tha-where is my super nifty travel document case?!  For a few moments, I search, panicked, when all of a suddenly an image comes into my mind: an image of me, sitting on the bench at the bus station and setting my super nifty travel document case down next to me and not in my bags.  A wave of horror sweeps over me.  My flight is in 2 hours.

“Excusez-moi, Monsieur?”  The tremor is hardly hidden in my voice as the driver turns to look at me.

“Oui?”

Okay French class, now is your time to shine.

“J’ai oublie mon passeport a la gare,” sadly, I am too freaked out to even be proud of myself for remembering how to say that I forgot my passport at the station.  (apologies for lack of accent marks; I am on an American computer)

“Ah, c’est vrai?!” 

“Oui.  C’est vrai.”  Yes, it is true, yes, I am that person. 

He points me to the bus service kiosk and I scurry over with my bags (still sweating).  The lady behind the desk is kind and concerned and immediately phones the bus station.  A look of triumph passes her face, “Oui, they have it!”  She then asks me when my flight is and immediately her face changes.  The only bus that could have gotten it to me in time had already left. 

So, I am an hour away from home without a passport and an impending flight in an hour and a half.  I run to the airline service desk.  There are no more flights today; there is a flight tomorrow but it will cost 350 euro to change.  The tears well up in my eyes as I desperately try to hold it together.  After running to the internet kiosk to email MB and get his advice, I then run back (still sweating, by the way, I mean, why should France air-condition their airports?) and book the obscenely expensive ticket change.  Somehow, I am still not comprehending what is at work here.  This has been #2. 

Convinced that I have finally slain the disastrous beast that has been this day, I walk (sweating) with my bags to the hotel airport to get a room.  At least I can check-in and do some work and then tomorrow just wander back to the airport.    

Damn you, rule of 3!  Both of the airport hotels are booked solid.  I cry a little bit more (hey, why not?  I mean, I had already started) and then head back inside, dragging my suitcases behind me…sweating. 

I return to the lady at the bus kiosk.  “Ah oui!” She says. “Your passport, it comes soon.”  She points up at the clock. 

“Oui,” I say with a lopsided smile.  “I know, but I can’t get a flight until tomorrow and the hotels are booked so I need to buy a ticket back home.”  (this is all in my bad French)

Her look changes and I can tell she is sorry for me.  “But you know,” she says.  “You are very lucky!  What if they did not have your passport?!” 

She is so earnest and she is so right. 

I smile and laugh, “YES!  The silver lining, you are right, it could be much, much worse!”

She rings up my return ticket and hands it to me with a smile.  “Bonne chance, Mademoiselle!”  (good luck)

Luck is a funny thing; it is forever a two-sided coin.  On the one hand, there are the bad things, the annoying, irritating, horrible things in life that just sometimes happen.  But, on the other side, there are the great things, perfect weather when you need it, chance encounters with nice people, making it to your flight terminal just before they close the gate.  This morning, I felt like I had been given a three course meal of lemons.  The rule of 3 got me good and my birthday superstition proved its metal; but with a little help I managed to see the luck on the other side of the coin.  Nothing had happened that couldn’t be fixed; and in today’s world, that’s not a bad gift.  So this year for my birthday, instead of more gifts, I think I will settle for a nice, cool glass of lemonade.

Holiday Savagery: Would Ralph have survived bad traffic?

In the United States, holiday traffic can be frustrating and extremely unpleasant; in France, it is epic and terrifying. I know it seems unusual to apply the idea of ‘fear’ to traffic but let me assure you that it is accurate, even the traffic radio station (which primarily plays horrible French songs and only updates about every 20 minutes) seems frightened by it; in one update I heard, the announcer finished with, “to all you drivers, I wish you good luck!” It had the same somber tone as a general sending troops into combat and knowing that they weren’t coming back. Once, when I lived in New Orleans, I had to evacuate for a hurricane; the whole city emptied onto the highway at the same time. This weekend was worse.

France is smaller than Texas but has almost 3 times the population. So imagine if you put 62 million people in Texas and then put them all on holiday, oh, and add 8 thousand toll stations; the result is a 4 lane highway gridlocked for anywhere from 200 to 600km.

After four hours of sitting in traffic, MB and I decided that we would beat the system by going onto the smaller national highway…apparently the rest of France had the same idea.

“I hope this wasn’t a mistake.” I look at the row of red break lights in front of us.

“No, I think this will be better. I mean, look at the highway?” MB responds, ever the optimist.

I look back at the highway behind us and see the interminable line of cars that are not moving. “Yes, okay, this is definitely better.”

20 minutes later we are still inching our way along the same off-ramp and have realized that just beyond the ramp is yet another toll station, putting the traffic to an almost complete standstill.

“What is up with the toll stations? It is ridiculous! I mean, the second traffic starts moving there is a toll station to screw it all up again!” My blood pressure is starting to rise and like any good girlfriend I take MB along with me for the journey.

“Oui, I know! It is ridiculous (in MB phonetics: reed-deek-cue-los)! Why do they think this makes sense? There should be a pass so you can drive through; it is like the middle (meedle) ages!”

40 minutes later.

“Hey!” I scream this. “Is that guy serious? Um…no way, no way! Do NOT let him in!” We have finally inched our way within about 10 cars from the pay stop and now rogue drivers keep coming from the side and skipping the line.

“Pffff…are you joking? No way! These people (eye roll), we sit for one hour and they think they can just-”

“MOTHER F*CKER! Are you f*cking kidding me?!” The car in front of us lets the interloper in. MB falls on the horn, I flip the bird. It’s like Lord of the Flies, one person has disrupted the order of civilization by skipping the line and we both revert to being savages. I can practically see the smoke coming out of MB’s ears and I keep grabbing handfuls of my hair.

After about an hour and a half of torture, relief finally came in the form of a two lane (sometimes one lane) route that we found, past both the highway and the national highway. It is the scenic route that passes through Provence and the Rhone. Normal tones of voices returned and curse words dissipated as we got farther away from the crowds. We found a small café and had a cup of coffee; there were no other cars and the only other patrons were a group of older gentlemen drinking pastis and playing cards. The next 3 hours were spent driving by Roman ruins, vineyards, and through mountain passes; we chatted cheerily and continually congratulated ourselves on what a good decision we had made.

Strange that it took an escape from civilization to return us to behaving in a civilized fashion.